I read once that a reliable indicator of a person’s intelligence is their ability to understand metaphors. I don’t know if this is true or not, but helping students understand similes and metaphors is one of the most valuable lessons we can teach them. For one thing, the English language is full of metaphors-it’s always fascinated me how often we don’t mean exactly what we say when we communicate. But unfortunately, many of our students are stuck at the “life is like a box of chocolates” stage of understanding similes and metaphors, and we can help them move beyond that. Poetry is one of the best way to do that.
I like to introduce metaphors to my students with this poem by Emily Dickinson. It’s a riddle poem, so students first have to figure out what it is from the clues that Dickinson gives us in the form of similes and metaphors. And since it’s about (SPOILER ALERT!) snow, it’s certainly timely for winter.
Here’s the poem:
It sifts from Leaden Sieves –
It powders all the Wood.
It fills with Alabaster Wool
The Wrinkles of the Road –
It makes an even Face
Of Mountain, and of Plain –
Unbroken Forehead from the East
Unto the East again –
It reaches to the Fence –
It wraps it Rail by Rail
Till it is lost in Fleeces –
It deals Celestial Vail
To Stump, and Stack – and Stem –
A Summer’s empty Room –
Acres of Joints, where Harvests were,
Recordless, but for them –
It Ruffles Wrists of Posts
As Ankles of a Queen –
Then stills it’s Artisans – like Ghosts –
Denying they have been –
So what do I ask students to do with the poem?
1. Find the similes and metaphors.
Once the students figure out that the poem is about snow, is ask them to find all the things that snow is compared to that allowed them to figure it out. It seems like a pretty easy task, but it gets complicated right away in the first two lines with an implied metaphor – a comparison where the figurative and the metaphorical are not directly stated. Snow is compared to flour (or sugar), but neither word appears. The “leaden sieves” are the clouds (another metaphor). Implied metaphors are a concept that moves beyond a limited understanding of metaphors to a more advanced concept.
2. Examine the word choice in the metaphors.
The next thing I ask students to do is consider the words that are being used to describe the snow. What kind of snowfall is Dickinson writing about? “Sifts,” “powders,” and “fills” are all gentle verbs. Also, the snow is compared to “fleece” and “ruffles.” This is a gentle snowfall and not a raging blizzard.
3. Provide a reason for the shift in tone that occurs in the fourth stanza.
However, everything changes once we get to the final stanza where we have a significant shift in tone. The last thing I like to ask students to do is identify the shift and explain which words create it. Those words are “ghosts,” and to a lesser extent, “deny they have been.” I ask the students what the difference is. I want students to come to the realization that snow not only softens the landscape, but also can uniformly cover the landscape. The shift in tone that occurs in poems is an important skill for readers to develop, as well as the understanding that rarely do poets feel only one way about their subject matter.
Of course there are other literary devices at work here – personification being the most obvious – but for a quick introduction on metaphors and similes, this poem has worked well for me.
If you’d like a FREE lesson on this poem that you can use tomorrow, click the link below. I’ve created a comic in which Emily Dickinson teaches the poem, as well as another Dickinson riddle poem that reinforces the concept of similes and metaphors. And it’s yours for free just by clicking the box!
Learning should be fun! Check out my Teachers Pay Teachers store for fun comic resources like those below.